The Ministry of Presence
September 30, 2021 | Dr. George Martin
(Originally addressed to the saints of Baxter Avenue Baptist Church | November 11, 2019)
First, let me note that I have been your pastor for over a year, now. There have been (as always there will be)
ups and downs, opportunities and challenges. But, oh my, how much I have enjoyed my time with you!
I thank God for this ministry he has given us together.
This letter will be one of my occasional letters to the church, largely by way of instruction and encouragement,
I hope. The other day, in one of my seminary classes, Levi and I engaged in a bit of pleasant and good-natured back and forth kidding. I was thanking him for being present and on time – I can’t do class, you know, unless Levi is present 😊 – and he retorted, “It’s my ministry of presence.” I had to commend him on that response;
it was witty and well done. For days, now, I have been reflecting on that conversation, and I want to share some thoughts with you (kind of a long letter; sorry about that). I hope you will see all this as an encouragement toward the goal Paul states in Romans 12:1 that we would be able to present our bodies as living sacrifices,
holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
I was sharing some thoughts with Westte, and he reminded me that people use this terminology
(“ministry of presence”) all the time. As I thought about it, I realized he was right. Biblically speaking, do you remember Job and his terrible suffering? After his wife had berated him, Job’s friends came to him, and the Bible tells us: “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). Sometimes, words simply will not suffice.
I mean, what do you say to someone who has suddenly and unexpectedly lost a close and dear, loved one?
Of course, we remind the person of God’s compassion and care and faithfulness. But beyond these things, what comforting words can we provide? Sometimes, the best thing to do is just sit with our friend
and be there. A ministry of presence!
I am thinking, here, though about a different context, the church. The church is a unique and wonderful provision God has given us as his people. As the church, we not only are priests before God, proclaiming his greatness – Do you remember Peter’s observation? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) – but we are also a body made up of different parts, each contributing to the welfare and growth and joy of the other (You might take a look at Ephesians 4:1-16.
I hope you will read this text.).
Here’s the thing. Our lives as disciples of Christ are not lived in isolation. Rather, we live together as family.
We live together in close, loving relationship with one another. This is the only kind of genuinely Christian life the Bible knows. Do you remember the early church and how, Luke tells us, “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,
praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46,47)? They spent time together!
We get it, don’t we? Perhaps you can remember a Christmas when you were so excited about your entire family coming together for a few days. Maybe it had been a long, long time since everyone had been together.
How eagerly you looked forward to that time! But, then, you learned that someone would not be able
to make the trip and join the family gathering. Now, rather than excited, how terribly disappointed you were. The absence of someone you dearly love threw a shadow over what you expected to be a wonderful Christmas together as family.
Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet and he had shared his last meal with them. He loved those men,
not only with words, but he put his love into action, first, by washing their feet. Wearing only sandals on those hot, dry, and dusty paths, how dirty were their feet! Typically, in entering a house, a wash bowl would be available for guests to wash their own feet. In the more affluent households, however, the servants would wash the guests’ feet as they entered. Because of Jesus’ great love for his disciples, with joy he stooped down,
in the fashion of a servant, to wash the feet of those whom he loved. Furthermore, Jesus ate with his disciples. He spent time with them. He talked with them and, on this occasion, he talked specifically about his coming death. It is in this context, in which Jesus demonstrates his great love to his own, that he teaches, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
In the church, we are to love as Jesus loved.
John instructs us, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). In one of the most important ways, that love is demonstrated simply by being with one another. How is love, perhaps, most genuinely expressed? Presence! When we love someone, we want to be with that person! If you would allow me to get a bit personal for a moment, I will tell you that Donna and I, when we were courting (am I betraying my age by the use of that term?), never lived in the same location except for a very few days. When apart, how our hearts ached to be together! And so it should be with us, Christ’s church. We should long to be together. We often talk about “church attendance” as if it is merely an obligation or responsibility. We tend to “take roll” and count how many people are present on a Sunday morning. With a large count, we imagine that we have had “a good Sunday.” When the attendance is low, we imagine we have had “a not so good Sunday.” This is wrong thinking, I believe. Healthy church life is not measured simply by counting noses. Rather, our health is largely measured by our love toward God and toward one another. We want to spend time with God. And we want to spend time with his people.
It’s not a matter of asking, “How many times have I been to church, this week?” Rather, the question we must ask ourselves is: “Do I truly desire to gather with God’s people for fellowship and worship and to do the work
of the gospel?” If I can answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” then any attendance issues sort of take care of themselves, don’t they? It’s not so much an attendance issue as it is a heart issue.
I do not follow college football nearly as closely as I once did (Florida State football is not holding my attention much, these days.), but I did notice, this past weekend, the big game between the University of Minnesota and Penn State. Minnesota is having the biggest season they have seen in decades. After defeating Penn State,
the Golden Gophers are undefeated at 9-0. The Minnesota coach, P. J. Fleck, this season, has insisted
on using the slogan “Row the boat!” The meaning? We’re in this together. Row the boat together,
and just keep on rowing. We’ll reach our goals if, together, we just keep on keeping on.
May I encourage you to row the boat and to row the boat knowing that, when some stop rowing, the boat
slows or even comes to a stop? But when we row together, oh my! I think that’s why the writer of Hebrews
has encouraged us: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting
to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24,25). Also, consider Paul’s counsel:
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Let me just say that, when we gather (for worship, outreach, food pantry, workdays, or whatever),
I will never go around with a legal pad and pencil writing down names of those present and absent.
At the same time, when God’s people are absent from their brothers and sisters, how discouraging this can be. You know what I’m talking about; I know you do. But when God’s people faithfully gather and we see one another’s faces and enjoy fellowship with one another, well, in a sense, that is “the ministry of presence.”
Again, this letter is meant to be an encouragement to us all. I really mean that. I just wish to see us,
at Baxter Avenue Church, love one another greatly and demonstrate that love by our fellowship with one another. Keep in mind, also, that when our neighbors see that love displayed, they will know there is
something different about us, something good, something they will want.
With eagerness, I look forward to gathering with you, this coming weekend, along with the people of Cedar Creek Baptist Church. Just as a reminder, if you plan to eat breakfast at Cedar Creek, Saturday morning at 9:30, please sign up on our Facebook page or let Brady know. Whether or not you join the breakfast, I hope you’ll join us, afterward, for our time of outreach in our Irish Hill neighborhood. Some folks from Cedar Creek will be joining us to help. And please do not forget that, Sunday morning, we are worshipping with Cedar Creek
on their campus at 10:30. If you need a ride to Cedar Creek, you can let me know, and we’ll get you there.
May the Lord give to us a wonderful weekend of fellowship, outreach, and worship as we gather.
I look forward to seeing you.
With warmest Christian love,